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World Social Forum

(I attended the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, in January 2004 with the Network Institute for Global Democratization. Click on the photos for larger images (still higher resolution images appropriate for print purposes available upon request). Comments and suggestions welcome.)

Main drag at the WSF with Jubilee South banner: "No peace, no justice under debt domination."

Be careful what you listen to

by Marc Becker

"Be careful what you listen to," the immigration officer advised after interrogating me before boarding the Delta/Air France flight from Cincinnati to Paris on my way to Mumbai, India for the fourth annual meeting of the World Social Forum (WSF). His comment drove home the point that increased security measures in the United States are targeted as much (if not more) against political dissent than violent acts of terrorism. The immigration agent was particularly concerned as to what topics would be discussed at the WSF and with whom I would be meeting. In all of my travels, I don't believe I have ever been interrogated by U.S. immigration upon leaving the country.

The immigration officer could tell I was stunned by his overt attempt to limit my freedom of speech. I took my seat and plugged in the earphones to the plane's audio system to hear the melodic voice of the Argentine Mercedes Sosa singing "Gracias a la vida" (Thanks to Life). It was such a dramatic contrast to the immigration officer; one attempted to limit freedom while the other celebrated all of the goodness that life has to offer. In a sense, the stark contrast represents the important alternative that the WSF provides to corporate-led globalization in the world today.

World Social Forum

Crowd gathers at the Maidan on January 16 for the WSF opening session.

The World Social Forum has its roots in the First International Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism which the Zapatistas organized in Chiapas, Mexico in 1996. The consolidation of civil society on an international level took a dramatic step forward in the 1999 protests in Seattle which shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks. Growing out of this, about 10,000 people gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January 2001 in the first WSF to provide an alternative to the World Economic Forum (WEF) that has met every year since 1971 in the resort town of Davos, Switzerland. During the next two years, the WSF grew by leaps and bounds, with 50,000 gathering in 2002 and 100,000 meeting in 2003 (see my report). The open spaces for civil society that the WSF created in Porto Alegre provided a dramatic contrast to the exclusive and closed door meetings in Davos where economic elites and political leaders gather to plan the future of neoliberal economic policies.

One of the food courts spread throughout the NESCO grounds.

The WSF grows out of what some term an anti-globalization movement, but in reality it provides an alternative and positive example of globalization that benefits people rather than concentrating wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations embraced the neoliberal version of globalization, with its emphasis on privatizing social services and shifting government resources away from education and health care. These policies have resulted in trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that result in an erosion of worker rights, salaries, and environmental standards.

IFAT banner: "A World of People"

In contrast, the WSF champions the power of civil society, which some have termed "the world's second superpower." It rejects neoliberal economic polices that theoretically advocate economic growth but empirically have resulted in a dramatic increase in inequality between the rich and the poor. It is also unified in its opposition to the Bush administration's militaristic policies, especially its unilateral and illegal war and subsequent occupation of Iraq. But much more than what it opposes, the WSF is marked by what it affirms. Under the slogan "Another World is Possible," it presents (as stated in its Charter of Principles) "an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed toward fruitful relationships." Sometimes termed a "movement of movements," the WSF empowers civil society in its struggle for social justice.

Entrance to the WSF.


Although 100,000 activists participated in the 2003 meeting of the WSF in Porto Alegre, about 80 to 90 percent of those were from Brazil. In order to make the WSF a truly global movement, the WSF International Committee (IC) decided to move the 2004 meeting to India. The result was a dramatic change in the flavor of the event. Gone were the Che t-shirts that were ubiquitous in Porto Alegre, replaced instead with endless banners championing a myriad of local Indian causes. Some observers had feared internal fractional disputes within the Indian left would cause the WSF to implode, but instead it emerged as a more vibrant and solidified expression of civil society. As in Porto Alegre, the vast majority of delegates in Mumbai were local activists from India. Rather than being a limiting factor, this strengthened ties between the local and global in what has been termed to be a "glocal" movement. The Indian presence was complemented with a strong Asian contingent, including a large and vocal South Korean group advocating a global campaign to defeat Bush in the 2004 elections.

Main drag with the growing number of banners.

The Porto Alegre forums opened and closed with massive street rallies, and at first the absence of these official-sanctioned events seemed to be a be a noted omission from the program. But instead, the main street through the NESCO grounds that housed the Mumbai forum turned into one massive and constant rally with a variety of local groups forwarding their issues. Some of the rallies so clogged the street that it became difficult to move from one event to another. The constant beating of drums competed with, and sometimes drowned out, the panels and roundtables housed in tents set up for this purpose. In fact, there were two parallel and complementary meetings of civil society: the official and organized sessions convoked in the meeting rooms, and the informal encounters between groups on the street of the NESCO grounds.

In Porto Alegre, the forum's official languages were English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French. The international flavor of the event was marked by its multi-lingual aspect, and those who were merely bi-lingual were at a distinct disadvantage. In Mumbai, Hindi replaced Portuguese as an "official" language, but it became a defacto bilingual event with sometimes notable and polarizing results. Although translations were provided for major events in the large halls, white European faces dominated English-language events with Indians largely attending events addressing local issues in which Hindi became the lingua franca.

Sami activist speaks on panel "Survival of Indigenous People Adivasi Globally."

The Mumbai forum opened on the evening of January 16 with a series of speeches and cultural celebrations. Significantly, the Pakistani rock band Junoon that is known for its progressive politics was the first group to take to the stage in this country which is its nuclear rival. Writer-activist Arundhati Roy urged delegates to shut down corporations that benefit from the Iraq war.

DL Sheth and Heikki Patomaki speak at NIGD panel "Strategies toward global democratization: What after unilateralism?"

Over the next four days, delegates participated in a variety of plenary sessions, conferences, panels, roundtables, seminars, workshops, cultural events, solidarity meetings, and rallies. Beyond the standard topics of economic globalization and military imperialism, panels also touched on the themes of land rights, racism, gender, labor, and the media. Often these issues were engaged in the Indian context and specifically related to issues of castes including the rights of Dalit (untouchables) and Adivasi (Indigenous peoples). The breadth of topics presented in Mumbai led some in the media to conclude that the WSF does not have a message. But that diversity of views and concerns is what the WSF is about–the creation of spaces for social movements to present and debate a broad range of issues.

South African Trevor Ngwane challenges Joseph Stiglitz's ideas on reforming the WSF.

A variety of “stars” often dominate the discourse at the WSF. One of those at Mumbai was Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate who was an advisor to the Clinton administration and chief economist at the World Bank. He now rejects World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) neoliberal policies because they are driven by ideology and economic interests rather than a viable economic theory. Neoliberal models fail to lead to growth, resulting instead in a growing economic inequality and political instability due to an erosion of workers’ earnings. Stiglitz rejects a simplistic market fundamentalism that believes that markets can solve all problems. He pressed for reforms, including the provision of a safety net in privatization schemes and addressing social principles such as job creation programs in these policies. It is a mistake to “separate economics from broader social issues,” Stiglitz said. “We need an integrated approach.” Other participants found Stiglitz’s approach too conservative, and argued that these international systems cannot be reformed. For example, Trevor Ngwane from South Africa argued that capitalism itself is the chief obstacle to realizing a dream of economic progress and social justice. “Capitalists use systems of wealth to benefit only themselves,” he argued. “Only the struggle of the oppressed to overthrow capitalism will end oppression.” Ngwane pointed to the important role of the WSF in forwarding alternative visions to capitalism that puts profits before people. Since capitalism cannot move without labor, new social movements must foster alliances with labor to stop capitalism. Capitalism is antithetical to democracy, Ngwane contended, because it removes power from the people.

Chico Whitaker speaks at NIGD panel "The Politics of the WSF's Open Space."

An increasingly common topic of discussion at the forum was the structure of the WSF itself. Its internal structure and functions have never been very transparent nor democratic. As Immanuel Wallerstein noted, someone made the decision to meet this year in Mumbai but no one consulted him on that decision. Is it important for these internal mechanisms to become more apparent to participants? From its conception, the WSF has focused on civil society and eschewed involvement with political parties. Should the WSF take advantage of its positioning in order to press a political agenda? Until now, the forum has been content to provide a space for discussion and to allow other grassroots groups to engage in political action. Some of the leaders point to the dangers of the WSF becoming a "fifth" international. Others, such as Roberto Savio, argue that the WSF needs to be in a process of constantly reforming its political strategies or risk becoming irrelevant. These are some of the growing pains that the organization is facing, and its ability to survive as a viable organization will depend on its ability to weather these storms.

Javier Correa speaks out at People's Forum Against Coca-Cola.

Some sessions were so large that they overflowed their assigned venues. For example, a People's Forum Against Coca-Cola moved its workshop outside when it found its space too small. In a speech translated from Spanish to English to Hindi, Colombia labor leader Javier Correa recounted how Coca-Cola supports death squad activities in his country. "Coke is a symbol of U.S. imperialism," Correa declared, "and it supports the U.S. war against Iraq as well as in Colombia." Linking his struggle to similar ones in India against the soft drink giant, he called for an international campaign against Coke.

Drinking water.

Organizing an event with over 100,000 participants can be a logistical nightmare, and some wondered whether with limited funding the Indian Organizing Committee could pull it off with only a year during which to organize it. The local committee preformed admirable (especially since it did not count on municipal financial support, as the forum had in Porto Alegre), with only small bumps in an otherwise smooth event. As in Porto Alegre last year, the program only finally appeared a day after the event started which initially made it difficult for participants to find their sessions. The hot and humid weather put extreme pressure on the water supply, though somehow the local water provider managed to keep up. Dozens of local groups set up food stalls, which made nourishment plentiful, convenient, cheap, and tasty. Hundreds of exhibition stalls added an additional component not overtly present in Porto Alegre. Conveniently, the events were concentrated on one campus rather than spread across a city as had been the case in Porto Alegre.

Mumbai Resistance 2004 Against Imperialist Globalisation and War.

Mumbai Resistance 2004

Across the Western Express Highway from the NESCO grounds which housed the WSF meeting, a dissident group organized a parallel event called Mumbai Resistance 2004. This group disagreed with the WSF's acceptance of funding from the Ford Foundation and other similar groups, contending that it represented a corporate sell-out of the WSF's progressive agenda. MR2004 derided the WSF's refusal to publish declarations or officially support actions, preferring instead to leave such activities to local civil society and preserving the WSF as a space for discussion and debate. It also decried the WSF's emphasis on civil society, with a specific exclusion of political parties or armed movements. MR2004 seemed to spend more time and energy attacking the WSF's "reformist, counter-revolutionary, and undemocratic" character than denouncing the common enemies of neoliberalism, imperialism, and militarism.

Only a couple hundred people actively participated in the MR2004 events, and its concluding "Mumbai Declaration 2004 Against Imperialist Globalisation and War" included little language with which most WSF participants would dispute. Participants on both sides of the road agreed that civil society should organize massive demonstrations on March 20, the one-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in a global day of mobilization against war and for the withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq.

Communist Party of India billboards greeted people arriving at the WSF venue.

Arundhati Roy was one of the few high-profile speakers to cross the imaginary line between the WSF and MR2004. But in doing so, she called for unified resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. "What happened in Cancun was important," she argued, "and what it taught us was the importance of globalized resistance." She called Iraq "the culmination of both neoliberalism and imperialism" and urged participants "to become the resistance in Iraq." Many would agree with her call for the necessity to bridge the gap between reflection and action, as well as for the WSF and MR2004 to join in a common closing session. After all, the struggle is the same.

Paulo Freire Institute panel: "The role of transformative education in the process of global democratization."

The future of civil society

In 2005, the fifth meeting of the WSF is returning to Porto Alegre. Discussions are currently underway where to hold the 2006 meeting, with many delegates advocating moving it to Africa with Cairo, Morocco, or Johannesburg being mentioned as potential sites. In the meantime, the first meeting of the Americas Social Forum will be held in Quito, Ecuador in July 2004. The World Social Forum is virtually unknown in the U.S., with few delegates from that country making the pilgrimage to Mumbai. For those who are appalled with the Bush administration's blatant disregard for international law and who embrace values of social justice, the World Social Forum represents a democratic and popular initiative to reintegrate the United States into an international order on equal and just terms. It desperately needs the participation of more North American activists to demonstrate the need for international solidarity in struggles against the Bush administration's militaristic policies.

After a long flight from Mumbai to Paris and back to Cincinnati, I passed through U.S. customs only to come face-to-face with the same immigration officer who had warned me to be "careful what you listen to" on my way out of the country. "How was the trip?" he asked. "Great," I replied. "You should have come with me!" Another world is possible, and our future and survival as a planet relies on us making that a reality.

Marc Becker teaches Latin American history at Truman State University in Missouri. Reports on other trips are available at

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